Lessons from Chanute – closing of Chanute Air Force Base – Cover Story

John S. DeMott

The history of Chanute Air Force Base spans most of the air age. Named for 19th century aviation pioneer Octave Chanute, its first mission was training pilots for the nation’s fledgling combat air service in World War I. Charles A. Lindbergh took written exams there, and it was a major training facility for meteorologists, fire-fighters, and other technical personnel in World War II. During the Cold War, Minuteman missile technicians learned their trade there, and Astronaut Virgil “Gus” Grissom went through Chanute’s school for aircraft-maintenance officers.

But the Rantoul, Ill., installation closed 14 months ago, and its facilities are now home to 20 businesses, with a constant effort to attract more. The base is a leading example of a how a community can ease the economic impact of the loss of a military installation.

Chanute’s 3,500 military personnel and 1,035 civilian employees accounted for $341 million a year spent in the regional economy. Although Chanute’s closing in 1993, announced in 1988, came as little surprise, coping with the actual loss of an economic mainstay was difficult. Many lessons had to be learned through tough experience.

Now, says Mayor Katy Podagrosi, “we’re a model” for any community facing defense conversion. In light of what Rantoul has learned, the mayor and others offer these suggestions:

Organize immediately. Pull together business people, local officials, planners, and bankers who can speak for the installation. Rantoul had incorporated Chanute into its boundaries in the 1950s, so there was no squabbling over who had authority to do what. The town got word of Chanute’s closing on a Thursday; by Saturday, local leaders were meeting in Mayor Podagrosi’s office.

Assess what the military would leave behind. In Chanute, Rantoul got what in some ways looks like a well-maintained college campus, with even a few 1980s buildings. Other communities are not so fortunate. Says John Lynch of the National Association of Installation Developers: “The truth of the matter is that [the property] is often run-down.”

Hire professionals to recruit businesses. Chanute has two: Frank Elliott, a retired Air Force major general who commanded Chanute in the 1970s, and Ray Boudreaux, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, now director of Aviation and Reuse Development of Rantoul.

Use available federal resources. They are substantial. For example, Boudreaux’s salary is paid by Rantoul, which gets the money from the Pentagon’s Office of Economic Adjustment. Rantoul got $1 million to make loans to small businesses from the Economic Development Administration.

Recruit many small firms, not one big one. Depending on one large private tenant is not much different from depending on the military. Says Boudreaux: “I’d rather have 100 small businesses than one big one. If one small business folds, you’ve still got 99 left.”

Keep political lines open. Mayor Podagrosi has been in constant touch with Alan Olsen, director of the Air Force Base Closing Agency, near Washington, D.C., as well as the office of Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., to be sure the city gets whatever federal conversion aid is available.

Press for title transfers. Most military land on converted bases has been transferred to local “reuse” authorities like the town of Rantoul, which can then lease it to developers. But actual title transfer can be a long, frequently agonizing process. Get your member of Congress involved, and have your investors bring pressure.

Don’t look back. “It doesn’t pay to spend your time worrying about what might have been,” says Mayor Podagrosi. “What you have to deal with is what we have today, and what we have today is real opportunity.”

Of the 1,035 civilian jobs lost on the base itself, 917 have been replaced by the businesses that have moved onto or expanded on the land. A new Defense Finance and Accounting Center, one of 20 in the United States, will employ an additional 750 people when it opens in the next two years.

Business people who meet informally at BG’s, a popular breakfast spot in Rantoul near Interstate 57, say retail sales are up, and so are house sales, as Rantoul benefits from the Midwest’s economic recovery, which has been stronger than the recovery in other regions.

In a former base convenience store, Birkey’s, a 40-year-old dealership selling farm machinery, Dodge trucks, Buicks, and Chevrolets, has consolidated the offices of seven stores. Owner Gary Hedge pays only $650 a month–70 percent less than he’d pay in downtown Champaign-Urbana–for the business’s 4,600 square feet. Says Hedge: “I like it here.”

In a former Air Force meteorology school, with a bay-window view of hangars, Jack Phillips and Paul Andersen run Choice Productions, a maker of aviation calendars, brochures, and posters with sales of about $100,000 annually. Their monthly rent for 1,000 square feet is only $300. Says Phillips: “This is the best move we’ve ever made.”

In a former supply warehouse, Rantoul Products, part of Textron’s automotive division, has set up a manufacturing operation with 125 employees. The company makes instrument panels, door panels, and quarter trim panels for Chrysler Jeeps, Chrysler Dakota trucks, and Chrysler LeBaron convertibles.

At Golfview Village, a development of 706 houses at Chanute that once housed noncommissioned officers, remodeling is under way. At least 34 families have moved in and are paying rents ranging from $350 to $500 for a four-bedroom townhouse; 30 more people have signed occupancy documents. Most of them intend to buy, though they can’t do so until title is transferred from the Air Force.

Lawrence Roessler’s Rantoul construction company is working on the development and, together with partner Kyle Robeson of Champaign, successfully bid $2 million for the section of Chanute that includes Golfview Village. Roessler says: “This is the best thing we’ve ever done. This is the best thing that’s ever happened to Rantoul.”

Roessler and Robeson have spent about $300,000–two-thirds as a down payment to the Air Force for the property and the rest for remodeling and other expenses.

Complaints have been few. A squabble over who would provide natural gas to the base was resolved. And business leaders are still trying to get removed from Chanute’s West Gate an old Minuteman I missile, a reminder of bygone days.

COPYRIGHT 1994 U.S. Chamber of Commerce

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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